Eric Bunk sat on the edge of his seat, his back upright and stiff but his head nodding as he listened to the house rules.
Eight men surrounded him on the cluster of couches, their gazes fixed on Bunk as they considered whether the 21-year-old was worthy of becoming their new housemate. Many of their questions were innocuous, even lighthearted. “Do you have a car?” “Do you like to play chess?” “Are you good at softball?” The residents were slated to compete in a softball tournament and, as house manager Bryan Gue put it, “we could use all the help we can get.”
Other lines of inquiry were more serious. “What’s your addiction history?” “Do you have a sponsor?” “What does your relationship with God look like?”
This was not a conventional shared living situation. As its name suggests, the Prodigal Son House in west Frederick gives recovering male addicts a chance to start anew, trading in their drug- and crime-ridden histories for sobriety and a faith-based lifestyle. The multi-phase program combines group support, faith and training on topics such as relationships and budgeting.
“It’s about learning from and becoming the men they want to become, rather than who they were,” explained Paul Foss, who owns and oversees Prodigal Son House. Foss also serves as founder and president of a multi-church men’s ministry called Waterboyz for Jesus.
The house does not offer treatment programs or counseling. But residents must participate in a 12-step program and have a sponsor. Other requirements include regularly attending church services and one of the Waterboyz “tables” or small group Bible studies; community service; holding down a job (with help offered in finding one if needed); paying rent; and most importantly, staying sober while agreeing to random drug testing. Medically assisted treatment, including prescription medications such as Suboxone, is not allowed.
Part of Gue’s role as house manager is to enforce these rules. More importantly, though, he acts as a support and role model for his housemates who are in earlier stages of recovery. He can empathize; he was once one of them.
Something to believe in
Gue, 38, rattled off the exact date he entered Prodigal Son House without hesitation: Nov. 8, 2016. Aside from the two years of sobriety he had already achieved when he arrived — he can now claim four years clean from heroin — the odds of success were not on his side.
He came with a bag of hand-me-down clothes, a criminal record that included two years in prison for second-degree burglary, and a history of unsuccessful attempts at getting clean in recovery programs.
“I would always go about a year [clean]. Then I would go back out and start using,” Gue said.
His road to recovery was again scattered with struggles — he recalled the first 15 job interviews in which he was turned down nearly as soon as his criminal record came up — and the temptation to use always lingered.
But this time, Gue had, as he put it, “developed a peace with God.”
He had long resisted religion, didn’t enjoy going to church as a child, and labeled the Bible “a way to keep society in check.” But in the solitude and reflection forced on him in prison, he found new meaning in faith and an inspiration that grew stronger during his time in the Prodigal Son House.
The faith-based model follows the emphasis on a spiritual power common among 12-step programs, Foss said, though not everyone accepted comes into the house from a Christian or other religious background.
Patrick Mulford, 30, was among those who, in his words, “bucked the system” when he arrived.
“I was really against it,” he said of the program’s faith-based requirements. “I didn’t go to church. I didn’t want to talk about God.”
Now, two months after he moved out of the Prodigal Son House and into his own home in Frederick, Mulford has a different outlook, a more calm and rational persona. He explained his transformation as a function of his newfound spirituality, but added that it was his roommates who deserved credit for pushing him through his initial resistance to find faith.
“They saw through the anger,” he said. “They held me accountable.”
That same peer support, a combination of empathy and accountability, proved the game-changer in Lindsay Stoughton’s road to recovery.
Stoughton, 29, lives just down the street from the Prodigal Son House in another sober living home for women in recovery. The house, plus another one for men, make up the peer-led sober living program known as Wakefield House, led by Eric Wakefield. Wakefield also heads a daytime peer-led support group called On Our Own.
In the Wakefield Houses, there is no house manager. Residents decide house rules using a majority-rule voting system, though Wakefield can override them if needed, he said.
Coming off a stay with her now-ex boyfriend’s mother after finishing a detox program at Mountain Manor Treatment Center, Stoughton found the transition difficult, unaccustomed to sharing space with other women — up to 12 when the house was at full capacity. Her initial hesitation soon gave way to gratitude for her roommates.
“It’s allowed me to rebuild my life, to form real friendships with other women who can love me when when I can’t love myself,” Stoughton said.
Love doesn’t mean universal acceptance, though, according to Stoughton. The women hold one another accountable to the rules — requisite check-ins with other housemates, attending 12-step meetings, and a strict no-visitors policy during the initial stay.
Asked what the Wakefield House’s sobriety policy was, Wakefield answered, “I’m not an absolutist.”
He continued, “that said, most all folks have had major issues with drugs and alcohol and a vast majority need to stay clean and sober.”
All residents are subject to random drug tests. And if residents suspect another housemate is using, they can request a urinalysis on a specific person at any time.
Anyone using is caught fairly quickly, because, as Wakefield put it, “it’s really hard to fool a group of addicts.” Gue, who also enforces the sobriety policy at Prodigal Son House — supplementing the program’s random drug tests — agreed.
Relapses happen, as both Foss and Wakefield admitted. Andrea Walker, director of Behavioral Health Services for the Frederick County Health Department, agreed that some number of relapses was expected in any kind of program for recovering addicts, just as it was also a possibility for recovering addicts living on their own or, as is often the case, on the streets.
At Wakefield House, residents vote on whether to let someone stay, a decision largely based on the attitude and circumstances of the person caught, Stoughton said.
“If they’re willing to take accountability for their mistake, to commit to putting in the work, we do give second chances,” she said. But if the person were to maintain a victim’s attitude or air of defiance, the group might not be so forgiving.
“Our one big rule is we’re not willing to love somebody to death,” she said. “Because that’s what using, that lifestyle, leads to. Death.”
Foss highlighted the danger of even a single relapse, particularly amid the grips of an opioid epidemic, which ups the risk of fatality for those who relapse. But for Joshua Smith, relapsing was the wake-up call he needed.
Smith, 32, is closing in on 11 months at the Prodigal Son House, though his stay was interrupted seven months in when he, in “a weak moment of temptation,” drank alcohol. He owned up to his mistake even before a drug test outed him, and left the house for a 28-day period in an inpatient treatment center as mandated under program policies for those wishing to return.
Foss described Smith’s pre- and post-relapse attitude as “Josh version 1 and Josh version 2.”
“Josh 1 was extremely difficult to reach,” Gue agreed.
Asked how he would describe “Josh 2,” Gue answered in two words: “a man.”
Smith credited the change to an inward focus. He was forced to realize that the problem was not the places, circumstances or other people he had long blamed for his addiction, but himself, he said.
During the group interview with Bunk, Smith interjected with a friendly warning of sorts.
“I feel like guys come here waiting for this house to do everything for them,” Smith told Bunk. “That’s not the case. At the end of the day, it’s up to you.”
The autonomy that characterizes both the Wakefield and Prodigal Son houses is intentional, organizers say. And they’re not for everyone. Prodigal Son House, which can house up to 12 men, will still have six empty spaces after Bunk moves in, the result of several men graduating and several others who were kicked out.
Stoughton’s house is also not full, though Wakefield said demand often exceeds capacity.
Even as more recovery programs emerge, there could always be more, and more diversity in the types of programs, Walker agreed.
Bunk came to Prodigal Son from another residential recovery program, which he said he was asked to leave because his desire to work conflicted with program’s rules against working. Asked where he would stay if he had been turned down from Prodigal Son House, he named programs elsewhere in the state.
“Worst comes to worst, I could just sleep in my car,” he added.